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Congratulations, Doha and Riyadh! Enjoy the celebrations

Congratulations to Doha, Qatar and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on the announcement that they will be hosting the 2030 and 2034 Asian Games, respectively. Wonderful prospects for each city individually, but jointly they represent a unique opportunity to showcase the development of sport in the Gulf. At APEX Global Sport Group, we enjoyed a brief, virtual celebration when we heard the announcement, as we have all contributed to the development of sport in the Kingdom over the past five years.

We were also pleased that Saudi was awarded the 2034 Games rather than 2030. The event itself would have been a great success had Riyadh been awarded the 2030 edition, given Saudi’s growing portfolio of major international events. But in 2030, TeamSaudi will not be in shape to achieve a top 10 place in the medal table.

Team Qatar is better placed for 2030, having invested in Aspire and Aspetar and having naturalized a number of elite athletes. These athletes have set the standard for training, preparation and lifestyle management, from which junior Qatari athletes can learn. Qatar has a huge challenge to develop enough Qatari athletes from a small population, but Qatar has the advantage of being able to centralize its elite training programs. Given the existing infrastructure and sport policies, a ten-year timeframe in which to build a strong team for 2030 is tough but realistic.

There are 14 years – actually slightly less – between now and the 2034 Asiad in Riyadh. I hope someone has already installed a count-down timer in the reception of the Saudi Arabia Olympic Committee offices in Riyadh. It should act as a daily reminder of how much work has to be done, how much progress has to be made, new ground broken, in order for Team Saudi 2034 to perform to a level that will meet national expectations and set a platform from which to aspire to World and Olympic competitiveness.

Whilst the organizing committee responsible for delivering the Riyadh event concentrates on planning for and staging the Games, with the luxury of 14 years’ notice, a parallel program to develop TeamSaudi needs to start now – and recognize the value of every day between now and the opening ceremony for the 2034 Asiad.

Hosting any major sport event brings huge expectations. Expectations of organizing and hosting the event successfully, for sure, but the citizens of the host nation want their team to perform at the Games. During the 2018 Asian Games, Indonesia demonstrated that they were capable of hosting a major multisport event. Team Indonesia also made dramatic performance improvements and finished 4th in the medal table, but still a long way behind China, Japan and South Korea – the perennial top 3 nations at the Asiad, and also Olympic powerhouses.

The hegemony of China, Japan and South Korea in the Asiad is no mystery. All three have mature, holistic sports systems starting with diverse school sport and physical education, sports clubs (small community clubs and large multi- and single-sport clubs, sizeable populations, stable economies and strong state and corporate support for their elite sport programs.

In 2014, Saudi announced their breath-taking ambition to achieve a top 3 medal place at the 2022 Asian Games in Hangzhou, thereby displacing either South Korea or Japan. It was unrealistic, as a result of three strategic flaws:

· inadequate insight as to how to achieve top 3 at the Asian Games;

· no data to enable gap-analysis and performance forecasting;

· not recognizing all the blockers and shortfalls in the current sport system.

Even with 14 years to go until 2034, it is unlikely that Saudi will be able to disrupt the top 3. So, where should they target? Top 10? Or maybe top 5?

The respective host nations’ goals for 2030 and 2034 should be planned carefully and communicated with equal caution. The details should be kept confidential, but include sports - and events within sports - that they intend to target. Being able to add sports to the program to give home advantage will have some impact on the performance outcome, but in order to meet the public and political expectations of both host nations of the Asian Games, they will need to consolidate current strengths and dramatically increase their competitiveness in a lot of other sports.

Selecting sports and events on which to focus investment and effort in Saudi should be based on two things:

1. sports and events that “fit” with the culture of Saudi, to deliver a legacy of role models, coaches, clubs and competitions to inspire future generations and;

2. sports and events in which it is realistic to aspire to develop medal-winning performances within 14 years – from Saudi’s current situation. This is more complex and requires sophisticated gap analysis and performance forecasting.

The end column, “%”, describes each nation’s percentage of the theoretical maximum number of medals any individual nation can win – c. 350 at the 2018 Games. This is of primary importance, as only North Korea within the top 10 adopts a narrow focus on a relatively limited number of sports – a high-risk strategy at a multisport event. China, Japan and South Korea have always adopted: “You have to be in it to win it” as a starting principle. They enter teams and individuals in just about everything going.

A starting point for Saudi would be to plan to win 20% of the theoretical maximum medals (c. 350 in all probability), as their minimum target, so somewhere between 70 and 100, with at least 25% of those being gold medals. This process requires absolute objectivity; an objective, pre-Games forecast carried out by APEX-GSG directors indicated TeamSaudi would deliver a maximum of 7 medals at the 2018 Asian Games. This forecast contrasted starkly with the aggregate forecast of the Saudi sports federations in the months before the Games started, which suggested a total between 25 – 30. TeamSaudi delivered 6 medals:

We can see some challenges...

Challenge #1: to diversify the sports and events within which Saudi is competitive at regional level. Karate, show-jumping and particular track events in athletics have always been Saudi’s strong suit at the Asian Games. In addition, Saudi has won medals in a handful of other sports, but they urgently need to broaden the spectrum in order to be able to target 70 – 100 medals in 2034.

The superficially obvious strategy would be to focus on the sports with multiple medal opportunities that are already part of the Saudi sporting landscape: athletics, swimming, weight-category sports (combat and weightlifting), gymnastics. But those are the same sports that every other ambitious sporting nation has targeted – for the same superficially obvious reasons – with the result that the standard in Asia is already very high. For example, even with 14 years to go, Saudi will not be able to compete with China, Japan or South Korea in artistic gymnastics; there is insufficient time to develop the facilities, club structures, coaching, local, regional and national competitions. An individual apparatus specialist might just emerge by chance, but there isn’t sufficient time to develop a truly competitive team.

Challenge #2: to create stable, state-of-the-art, 365 days-per-year training environments. There are no training facilities in Saudi that meet world’s-best standards currently. There are ambitious plans, but as yet nothing tangible. There are plans to develop a Saudi Olympic Sport Institute; but in terms of a world-class training environment, that is still several years away.

There has been a pattern in Saudi of commissioning major event facilities, but not facilities to enable integrated, high-performance teams to function optimally, all-year-round. Getting the appropriate design and operation of such facilities right requires collaboration amongst infrastructure and high-performance sport specialists. Further, ensuring they are maintained and managed to world’s best standard requires that they are not affected by turn-over of leadership figures in government, SAOC or the sports federations themselves.

Challenge #3: to analyze in forensic detail the enablers and blockages to achieving sustainable high performance in sport in Saudi. Numerous aspects of the sporting landscape in Saudi appear benign, but actually work against the pursuit of high performance. The APEX365 Model is one way of identifying projects and programs of work to create a functioning sports system capable of sustaining high-performance expectations of athletes, coaches - and a nation.

The majority of the athletes who will participate in the 2034 Asian Games are currently between 5 - 15 years old and many will already be in talent development programs, however informally or inexplicitly; “talents” already identified as such or children who are currently participating regularly in grassroots programs within schools and clubs. The development and identification process for young athletes to represent TeamSaudi needs to start now and should be based on physical education and sport for all school children.

In general, the time from identification to the first world-level performance takes eight years of hard training and preparation, on top of basic movement literacy acquired via an active childhood. It will take four to six years to plan and implement the right level of “entry” to attract children to unfamiliar sports, training and competition programs, develop suitable infrastructure, the coaching workforce and other support staff. Therefore, with 14 years to go, now is the right time for Saudi to activate and enhance the entire sport system to develop a large (they should anticipate a team of c. 500-1000) group of athletes to be in their prime in 2034 and capable of competing for 70-100 medals.

But we can also see some reasons to be optimistic...

Reason to be optimistic #1: the impetus of hosting the 22nd Asiad. A fixed target date will help focus minds and synergize effort towards to a common goal. It cannot be deferred. The 2034 Riyadh Games should also stimulate a desire to develop athletes at home, rather than moving them overseas to train. Saudi has so many wonderful, local resources to exploit: two coastlines along which to develop canoeing and kayaking, rowing and sailing; altitude and a temperate climate in Abha; ideal winter weather for training.

Reason to be optimistic #2: the statement of intent behind the creation of the Mahd Academy. The Mahd Academy is an unambiguous statement of positive intent to develop young athletes – male and female. That intent will need to be multiplied many times over in order to stimulate the interest and development of tens of thousands of Saudi children. The Mahd Academy will not deliver on its own and all the literature is conclusive that it is not possible to identify a small number of children on whom to concentrate resources in the expectation that they will all go on to become elite level senior athletes and players. If the Mahd Academy is the spearhead of comprehensive youth development efforts at the national sports federation and community level, there is reason to be optimistic

Reason to be optimistic #3: Neom’s stated ambition to be a global hub of sporting excellence. It is still early days with the development of Neom, but there is intent and capacity within their plans to develop infrastructure and programs to support high-performance athletes.

Reason to be optimistic #4: the huge progress made by the Saudi Sport for All Federation. The remarkable progress in activating participation programs aimed at creating a more physically active population is a cause for optimism. Physically active parents generally encourage the same from their children and basic levels of physical activity and literacy are essential building blocks. The promotion of physical activity amongst girls and women has been stunningly impactful, with the formal introduction of a girls’ and women’s football league and other sport federations actively exploring ways to involve more girls and women in competitive sport within the local context of cultural and religious sensitivities. The remaining - and still huge – challenge is to harness early levels of activity and transition it via expert coaching into formal sports techniques, skills and a desire to compete.

We wish all our friends and former colleagues the very best in the build up to the 2034 Asian Games in Riyadh. A powerful TeamSaudi, comprising competitive men and women capable of winning 70-100 medals is a realistic ambition, with consistent and stable leadership, secure investment (this won’t come cheap) and a lot of good luck, too. Good luck is an under-valued commodity in elite level sport and we wish you plenty of it.

APEX Global Sport Group is specialized in analysis/externa; reviews, strategic planning, project management and program design/implementation within the full range of sport systems. We have extensive experience in providing sports organizations worldwide customized support in the development of their sport organization, grassroots and high-performance programs, including but not limited to; development of athlete pathways, coach development, design and implementation of Talent Identification and Development programs, and the design of high-performance programs and environments. We would welcome conversations with any NOCs, NPCs or national federations interested in fine-tuning their preparations for major events.

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